By Daniel R. Porterfield, President, Franklin & Marshall College
Published in the Huffington Post Feb. 7, 2013
Two years ago, I cheered for your can-do Dallas Mavericks when they showed the world that the way to win championships is through sustained hard work, creative problem solving and investments in the core of an organization -- its people.
And that's why I was so disappointed by your hyperbolic Huffington Post column last week, "Will Your College Go Out of Business Before You Graduate?", in which you told high school juniors "the days of picking a school because that is the school you always wanted to go to are gone."
No, those days are not gone -- and we shouldn't wring our hands and tell today's 16-year-olds that they'll have to settle for a lesser education.
Three aspects of your piece troubled me the most.
First, the combination of sweeping exaggeration and abject pessimism. Of course, in this economy, most colleges and universities do face financial challenges. And yes, we do need to protect students from taking on crippling debt -- particularly from some for-profit institutions, which have very high student loan default rates.
But our system of about 4,500 diverse colleges and universities remains the finest in the world. We're educating roughly 20 million undergraduates right now -- including hundreds of thousands of international students who cross a border for college because of the demonstrated excellence of American higher education. Sorry, Mark, but to keep our competitive advantage, higher education should continue to make prudent investments in laboratories, sophisticated software systems, and, yes, spaces for students to learn together.
While I don't think the sky is falling, clearly you do. And so, do you have any proposals besides telling teenagers that many once-successful colleges are now "doomed to fail?" Are there roles for the private sector, federal or state government, financial institutions, or philanthropists in addressing the problems you decry? After all, higher education is a ladder of upward mobility, a huge engine of our economy and a crucial investment in American competitiveness. I can't imagine Mark Cuban not fighting for something he values.
Which leads to my second concern, your vision of education. You tell students they should develop a strategy for getting "the most credits at the least cost," perhaps avoiding "ever having to step on a campus," as if that diminished approach is good enough for most students and their futures.
In our 21st-century global economy, which is knowledge-based, technology-driven and constantly changing, students need to develop their minds for lifetimes of higher-level thinking and learning.
Those individuals who can best reason, write, research, analyze, compute, create and communicate will thrive. The societies that develop the most advanced thinkers will outcompete the others. But this requires a true education, not the hodgepodge of online and mass-produced courses that you seem to think is sufficient.
I'm amazed that, as a business leader who chose to invest in a Top 10 business education of your own, you seem to equate "value" with getting the lowest price for an experience or product. Value includes quality, meaning and long-term benefits.
You dismiss introductory courses as if they're a waste of time, but what about all the students who find their passions and their careers studying a subject they first discovered in college? Take the field of earth science, which few high schools offer with any depth. Introduction to Geology courses often launch students into advanced study and deeply rewarding careers in fields such as energy, sustainability, environmental protection, construction, urban planning and many more.
Undoubtedly, a valuable college education opens the mind forever. It builds students' capacity for innovative research, mastery of new fields, freedom of thought, societal leadership and enduring professional empowerment. Going away to college also allows young people to learn and grow by creating campus culture together, living with students from diverse backgrounds, studying abroad, balancing work and play, and competing in athletics.
And, obviously, a great college education also prepares students to succeed in graduate school in medicine, law, engineering, economics, business, public health, government, national security, computer science and countless other fields crucial to our national future. America's higher education system has worked for people like you and me. Why would we deny this opportunity to the next generation?
That leads to my third concern with your piece. We who are older have a responsibility to inspire the young to lofty heights. But, you write, "...nothing shortcuts the dreams of a 22-year-old more than owing a shitload of money."
Actually, that's not true.
Nothing shortcuts the dreams of 22-year-olds more than having failed to develop their talent. We can't let the future leaders and builders of our country resort to sitting in their childhood bedrooms or coffee shops taking massive online courses with strangers. Instead, we should be challenging today's teenagers to study hard, strive for college, invest in their minds, and give back to their country.
Maybe that's "old school," Mark, but it's also the American way.